January 18, 1995
Del. Op. Atty. Gen. 95-I001 (Del.A.G.), 1995 WL 794526
(determining that Board of Bar Examiners is not a “public body” for purposes of FOIA because Board is a de facto arm of the Supreme Court)
Mr. John M. Murray
PO Box 143
Georgetown, DE 19947
Donald E. Reid, Esquire
Secretary, Board of Bar Examiners
State of Delaware
200 West 9th Street, Suite 300-B
Wilmington, DE 19801
RE: Freedom of Information Act Complaint 29 Del. C. § 10005(e)
This is the decision on the above-referenced complaint.
The operative facts are that on November 5, 1994 John M. Murray (the “complainant”), filed a complaint pursuant to 29 Del. C. §10005(e) with this office. The complainant enclosed therewith copies of various correspondence (the “correspondence”) to the Board of Bar Examiners (the “Board”). The complainant sought the following information from the Board which he contends is a public body within the meaning of 29 Del. C. §10002 of the Freedom of Information Act (the “Act”):
The complainant stated that the Board has denied his informal request for information. In his November 15, 1994 complaint the complainant requested the following information:
“1. How many petitions were filed with the Board?
2. How many petitions did the Board review on November 16, 1994?
3. What type of review process does the Board use to review petitions?
4. What type of review did my petition receive?
5. What basis did the Board use to grant or deny my petition?”
Subsequent to receiving the complaint this office requested and the parties complied with an informal letter memoranda briefing schedule. For the reasons which follow, this office finds that the Board is not a public body within the meaning of 29 Del. C. §10002(a) and therefore it does not fall within the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, 29 Del. C. Ch. 100.
The Board correctly points out that the definition of public body as it appears in 29 Del. C. §10002 was amended as a result of the Delaware Supreme Court’s decision in Delaware Solid Waste Authority v. News Journal, Del. Supr., 480 A.2d 628, 632 (1984). The definition of public body as it appears in the current version of §10002(a) is as follows:
(a) “Public body” means, unless specifically excluded, any regulatory, administrative, advisory, executive, appointive or legislative body of the State, or of any political subdivision of the State, including , but not limited to, any board, bureau, commission, department, agency, committee, ad hoc committee, special committee, temporary committee, advisory board and committee, subcommittee, legislative committee, association, group, panel, council or any other entity or body established by an act of the General Assembly of the State, or established by any body established by the General Assembly of the State, or appointed by any body or public official of the State or otherwise empowered by any state governmental entity, which: (1) Is supported in whole or in part by any public funds; or (2) expends or disburses any public funds, including grants, gifts or other similar disbursals and distributions; or (3) is impliedly or
specifically charged by any other public official, body, or agency to advise or to make reports, investigations or recommendations. Public body shall not include the General Assembly of the State, nor any caucus thereof, or committee, subcommittee, ad hoc committee, special committee or temporary committee.
The amendment in 1985 to §10002(a) by the General Assembly changed the definition of “public body” to expressly include all standing committees established, appointed or empowered by public bodies. Applying plain rules of statutory construction to the provisions of 29 Del. C. §10002, this office has already ruled in Attorney General Opinion No. 94- IO11 (March 7, 1994) that it believes the Delaware courts are outside the scope of the Act because, inter alia, the courts are established by the Constitution and not by the General Assembly (Op. at 2). Attorney General Opinion No. 94-IO11 held that court records such as the data base of the administrative office of the Court are not subject to the Act even though the administrative office of the Court was created by the General Assembly. As pointed out in In Re: Reardon, Del. Supr., 378 A.2d 614, 615 n.1 (1977) the Board was established by the Delaware Supreme Court as “an arm” under its [exclusive] “inherent power to regulate the practice of law.” Id.
To go one step further, established case law in Delaware is that it is a “[f]undamental constitutional privilege that this Court, alone, has sole and exclusive responsibility over all matters affecting governance of the bar.” In Re: Infotechnology, Del. Supr., 582 A.2d 215, 220 (1990) (Board opening memorandum at 5). This power derives from the doctrine of separation of powers. See e.g., In Re: Nenno, Del. Supr., 472 A.2d 815, 819 (1983).
Even if this office were to apply a statutory construction analysis, outside established case authority, this office believes the Board falls outside the definition of “public body” in 29 Del. C. §10002(a). First, based upon existing case law enumerating above, the board is “an arm” of the Supreme Court. Second, conspicuously absent from the definition of “public body” contained in §10002(a) are the words “court” or “judicial branch”. Although the General Assembly apparently failed to expressly exclude the courts and/or judicial branch in its definition in §10002(a) (like the General Assembly), we do not believe the Act applies for several reasons. A fundamental rule of statutory construction is that in construing a statute the objective is to render a “sensible and practical meaning, not an absurd or unreasonable result.” Rodney Square Inv’rs v. Bd. of Asses, etc., Del. Supr., 448 A.2d 237 (1982); Asplundh Tree Expert Co. v. Clark, Del. Super., 369 A.2d 1084 (1975). If the Act were to apply to the Courts, or any arm of the courts,
the Delaware courts would have to comply with all provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, 29 Del. C. Ch. 100, including the public notice provisions; (§10004); minute keeping (§10004(f)); preparing agendas (§10004(e)(2)); and maintaining minutes of executive sessions (§10004(f)). This office believes the Courts could not function in this capacity and we do not believe the General Assembly intended the Board to comply with the Act’s notice and record keeping requirements.
The Board also asserts in its memorandum that the doctrine of separation of powers bars this office from concluding that the Act applies to the Board because holding the Board subject to the Act would be unconstitutionally intruding upon the judicial branch of the Government. This office agrees and case law clearly supports the conclusion that the Supreme Court has the exclusive right to govern admissions of persons to the Delaware Bar. In Re: Nenno, Del. Supr., 472 A.2d 815, 819 (1983). Inherent in that right is the Supreme Court’s exclusive right to govern admission and to establish rules and procedures relating to the admission of the bar. See, e.g. Delaware Constitution, Art. IV, §1 and §13. The Board is a de facto arm of the Supreme Court and has the inherent right to set rules governing the Board and Bar admission process. Under Board of Bar Examiners Rule 52, which does, in fact, list certain exceptions, the Board is required to “keep confidential all information, documents and Board meetings or hearings concerning persons who apply for admission to the Bar.” Id. We therefore find that there may be an inherent intrusion upon the Supreme Court’s exclusive authority to establish their own procedures and govern the admission to the Bar if the Board was required to comply with the provisions of the Act enumerated above. See, e.g. Opinions of the Justices, Del. Supr., 380 A.2d 109, 113 (1988) (the doctrine of separation of powers is a fundamental part of Delaware law).
Before concluding we must note that the Delaware Supreme Court has addressed, on a limited basis, the discovery issue which Mr. Murray’s complaint seeks this office to review pursuant to 29 Del. C. §10005(e). The Supreme Court has previously ruled that there must be a threshold inquiry by an applicant who has taken the bar exam establishing some impropriety by the Board before any discovery order is granted. See, In Re: Zeigler, Del. Supr., No. 438, 1994, Del. Lexus (January 3, 1994); In Re: Petty, Del. Supr., 410 A.2d 1021 (1980). The Supreme Court did not address the discovery context beyond this threshold in these case decisions. In this matter, however, Mr. Murray does not allege or assert in his complaint any impropriety on behalf of the Board which would meet the Supreme Court’s requirements outlined in Zeigler or Petty.
Since we find that the Board does not come within the purview of the Act, we find no violation of the Act in not producing the instant records listed in Mr. Murray’s complaint. The complainants appeal rights are outlined in the Act in 29 Del. C. §10005(e).
John K, Welch
Deputy Attorney General
Michael F. Foster